A cultural break on the island of Crete

Greece’s largest island and southernmost point, Crete, has a rich history and a rugged, natural beauty that makes it ideal for exploring.

Like Athens or the Peloponnese, Crete lays claim to significant ancient treasures. Thousands of years of culture can be witnessed in the archaeological sites which are still standing today, particularly those linked to the Minoan civilisation.

With so many cultural attractions to take in, not to mention the beautiful beaches that hug the kilometre-long coastline, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Although public transport can be quite slow, it’s easy to get around with a hire car, opening up the whole island for you to enjoy at your own pace.

Heraklion

The capital of Crete is a hub for culture, both old and new. Venetian influences can be seen in the architecture that lines the harbour where colourful fishing boats bob in the sea. Museums include the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which has a huge range of artefacts on display from multiple eras.

Conveniently, Heraklion is just a short drive from the airport, so it makes a great first stop if you want to spend a few nights in town before exploring the rest of the island.

Old sculptures displayed in a museum

Image: Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Credit: Carole Raddato

Knossos Palace

Just a 15-minutes’ drive from Heraklion, Knossos is one of the brightest jewels in Crete’s cultural crown. The Minoan palace has stood the test of time for almost four millennia now, dating back to 1950 BC.

Thought to be the home of King Minos, you can wander around this vast complex of ruins, featuring brightly coloured columns and wall art. Don’t miss the vibrant reconstructed fresco in the Queen’s quarters, which depicts dolphins in an underwater scene.

Ruins of an ancient temple

Image: Knossos Palace
Credit: Vladimir Timofeev

Dikteon Cave

Crete is home to around 3,000 caves but if you’ve only got time for one then make sure it’s Dikteon Cave, also known as Psychro Cave. According to ancient myths and legends, the sacred cavern is linked to the birth of Zeus.

Take a drive up the mountains, to Lassithi Plateau and the village of Psychro. From here, you can hike or ride a donkey the rest of the way. Stalactite and stalagmite formations cover the cave’s atmospheric interior, including a formation known as ‘The Mantle of Zeus’.

stalactites over a path in a cave

Image: Dikteon Cave
Credit: ABB Photo

Phaistos Palace

You’ll find the remains of the ancient city of Phaistos on Agios Ioannis hill, in southern Crete, complete with impressive views of the surrounding area. The large Minoan palace area dates back to the 15th century BC, and includes the remains of a theatre and store rooms where large pottery jars once stood.

Discoveries here date as far back as the Neolithic period, and include the famous ‘Disc of Phaistos’ inscribed with hieroglyphs, as well as intricately decorated jars. Many of the findings are on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

historical ruins after being dug up

Image: Phaistos Palace
Credit: MixMotive

Samaria National Park

Hop in your car and drive to the west of the island to discover Samaria National Park. A celebrated landmark throughout Crete’s history, it’s a natural haven with its own unique ecosystem.

The Cretan wildcat roams its mountain slopes and valleys, and Mediterranean monk seals can be seen in the sea caves where the park meets the coast. The spectacular Samaria Gorge is etched through the forest scenery, and provides a stunning backdrop for a hike through the park.

a deer by some rocks

Image: Samaria National Park
Credit: Yrabota

Treasures of antiquity and notable natural attractions are easy to track down in Crete. Spring or early summer is ideal for sight-seeing before temperatures start to soar, from the beautiful beaches to unique ancient sites. Pick the perfect time to start your car and set off on a Cretan cultural quest.